How powerful is the idea of childhood? When I hear conversations of newlywed married couples (or relatively new, as in less than two years of marriage), there is a great anxiety on their part when their friends ask them when is the first child on the way. Or, as a children’s minister, to witness the joy of families when they bring in an adopted child from another country, there are very few questions about why, only inquiries beginning with how, as in how may I be a servant to this child? One of the worst things I could have done, as a children’s minister had nothing to do with disciplining any one boy or girl. It had everything to do with discouraging one of the kids from using their imagination about pictures with angels. In fact, it would be suffice to say that I had used my authority to limit the power that this one child was exhibiting.
Power is something that is unseen; it dwells in our imaginations, in the realm of ideas. Authority is the ability to make the invisible visible through the virtue of one’s location and positionality in the world. I have the position of children’s minister, for example. Part of my job requires me, to some extent, enter into the world of imagination that children have. It is quite easy for me since I have always enjoyed imagining what the world would be like if it was different. Today, as a theological student, I understand theology as constructing meaning in a world full of possibilities. Yet, I know something, from my life experience, having more years than the children I have been called to minister to: the imagination can be a dangerous place. Ideas are powerful things and the imagination is the place where our experiences, our rationalities, and ideas collide in order to help us make sense of the world.
I have seen how authorities have functioned in the world, not all things that take place in our imaginations are just. One persons’ dream can easily become another persons’ nightmare. Authorities perform according to how their imaginations perceive what power they may or may not have. There is nothing that exists that limits our imaginations, and therefore power, except we ourselves.
Take for instance, the racial imagination of US culture in particular, and especially with sports. Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are two of the greatest athletes to ever play their sports, basketball and golf, respectively. Everyone has their flaws and pitfalls but that did not stop corporations for marketing both men as “the magical negro.” The “magical negro” appears in movies as the black sidekick to help the white protagonist, he or she serves as a counterpoint to black criminality, laziness, and intellectual inferiority, and usually appears out of nowhere or does things out of this world to save white people; an example of this would be Chubbs from Happy Gilmore starring Adam Sandler or God from Bruce Almighty. The magical negro is the concoction of racial imaginations; for blacks, he or she is the great hope to redeem black America; for whites, he or she is salvation, to liberate whites from a racist past and to serve as an example of blacks to lift themselves up. Even the nicknames “Tiger” Woods and “Air” Jordan conjure mystical notions of this traditional archetype; considered as two of the most powerful men of color (the racialized Other) in the 21st century, Jordan and Woods serve as a concrete example how power, racism, race relations, and the imagination correspond.
Our imaginations are placed under control at an early age. Our parents inform us of what we are allowed to watch on television and they persuade us of where we should go in life when we grow up, when all the visits to Imagination Land end. One of the interviewees who I met at a recent Starbucks was raised by her parents to respect her teachers, and to not really question authority. Her parents respected her, and so my interviewee did likewise. There was one time in high school that she stood up to a math teacher, but other than that, she never really challenged authority, or those who held positions over her. My interviewee’s imagination had gone through the filter of her parents’ instruction. She loses respect for authority figures, now as someone in her early-twenties, when persons try too hard to establish their authority. She has to ask the question, what is going on here? What exactly is your issue?
To some extent, all of us have power. Presupposing that every human being equally has potential to imagine that another world is possible, authority can be good to the extent that it seeks to foster in individuals and communities the dream of a better and freer world. What makes religious texts so dangerous to the extent that they even threatened political regimes is that the human authors posit a vision of the world that is vastly different than the status quo. Our power, the ability to imagine, is what motivates us to change the world. Fatalism and deterministic theologies, where human reason and the concrete realities of the universe remain eternally frozen, have no need for the imagination. Authority can be abused and power (imagination) can lead to unjust thoughts and actions. Therefore, language and values are important checks on the imagination. The rhetoric of equality and the values of anti-racism struggles provide necessary measuring rods about what is appropriate speech and actions pertaining to race relations.
My other interviewee suggested that in educational contexts, such as in the church and the academy suggested that a teacher needs to maintain their position but at the same time, allow for multiple views. As I can continue my definition of power in this context, he seems to be suggesting that authority figures should permit as much freedom for subordinates to expressing the imagination (exercising their power). This second interviewee believes that the less structure a person has, the more freedom there will be to do ministry, education, education, artwork, or politics. The amount of power an authority has over us, really then, is a portrait from our own imaginations. Perhaps Jesus was trying to empower his followers when he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3, NIV).
For references, see http://www.doubletongued.org/index.php/dictionary/magic_negro/